Sian Berry: "London Deserves A Green Mayor"

Rachel Holdsworth
By Rachel Holdsworth Last edited 29 months ago
Sian Berry: "London Deserves A Green Mayor"
Green MP Caroline Lucas and Sian Berry.

The Green Party office in Shoreditch is in disarray when we pitch up to meet mayoral candidate Sian Berry. It's part campaign hustle — perfecting wording for the booklet that will land on Londoners' doormats next month — and partly because, with excellent timing, the whole team has to move buildings two days later.

In a way the organised chaos reflects the Greens' busy rise through London's political scene. Coming sixth in the 2000 mayoral election with 2.2% of the first choice vote, the party then landed third place with Jenny Jones in 2012 — albeit still with less than the 5% of first choice votes needed to keep the £10k deposit.

"I think we deserve a Green mayor in London," says Berry, once we're later settled in a nearby cafe. "I’m working hard to make it this year. This is the second time I’ve stood, so maybe by the third time I stand I’ll be able to win!"

Another thing the Greens have learned — presumably from years of accusations of being impractical hippies — is that they need to have figures for everything. Berry takes great care to emphasise where the money would come from for all her policies, particularly transport.

Transport

"It’s kind of an anomaly that just going to work, if you get on in zone 4 and you’re travelling into zone 1 you pay about three times more than somebody who’s in zone 2," she explains of her plan to make London a one fare zone. "So my idea was: can we flatten this? We got all the figures off TfL, made a big spreadsheet of all the adult fares and we modelled it into the future using TfL’s projections for growth and inflation.

"And then we did a second one and instead of doing what [TfL is] doing, we reduced the zones. First of all to four, by merging zones 5 and 6 and zones 3 and 4, and it’s affordable. Then we carried on that process — carry on the inflation increases for zones 1 and 2 but not increase them any more than they would have been otherwise. And we get there by 2023."

There's also a spin on what other candidates are calling the 'one hour bus ticket'. "I want to call it a one hour ticket, but actually it's more sophisticated and would be time-interaction based," she says. "[We'd] make it so your whole journey is done by origin and destination so you’re not paying twice, you’re not paying for a bus trip and a tube trip. The new back end of the Oyster system can handle that."

She believes her figures are actually on the conservative side, and that lower fares would attract more passengers. "My calculations show that we’re taking about 10% out of the fare box in total by 2023 and we’d be getting it back from new charges on drivers." TfL is apparently interested: "They’ve got my spreadsheets. Certainly flattening to four zones straight away is very feasible indeed."

Sian Berry (centre) with Green London Assembly candidates Shahrar Ali and Caroline Russell.

Given the amount of staring at spreadsheets the Greens have done, Berry — who has worked for Campaign for Better Transport — is not impressed with Labour's handiwork on its proposed fares freeze. "I’m taking a lot out of the fare income, but I know how I’m going to replace it," she says. "I’m rebalancing a small amount of the income that TfL has from fare payers onto people in cars and there’s a clear, strategic reason for doing that.

"What Sadiq [Khan] is doing is saying ‘I’m going to cut the fares’ and then afterwards he’s thought about the cost and what impact that might have on investment. So he’s not able to guarantee that he can pay for Crossrail 2, which we all know now we have to pay half towards, and he’s not able to say he can keep the cycling investment going."

Housing

On housing, the Greens have signed up to the commitment to build 50,000 new homes a year. But Berry is talking about a more diffuse programme to make those homes reality.

"Our plan is a little bit different to the other parties," she explains. "We want to keep what’s left of the Olympic precept next year, we want to add on to that a council tax rise. We reckon we can create a fund there that’s £28m, plus another 15 or so. Once we’d got that, we’d use it to kickstart a whole range of new models of housing provision.

"So there’s that extra money and the housing budget that the mayor has. All that can be used alongside TfL land where you’ve got control over the land tenure. You can genuinely make a start on things like getting smaller developers in, not for profit developers, co-ops, housing associations, self build — you can get all of them working together on smaller plots, not these great big masterplans.

"What you’re doing there is bringing in new money from people like co-operatives and self builders, who’ve got money to invest, but can’t afford to buy on the open market. So you’re creating a sort of secondary market where people are largely paying for the bricks and mortar, the land is staying with Community Land Trusts or with the co-operatives, and people are staying in a secure home for the rest of their lives. They’re not necessarily going to make a profit, it’s not a huge investment, but it is stepping into the breach we’ve currently got in the housing market."

Berry is deeply unimpressed with the big developers, who she's seen wriggle out of promises to build affordable housing during her time as a Camden councillor. "My experience in King’s Cross in particular shows how good [developers] are at their job. Which is making a lot of money. You can’t necessarily trust them and you can’t expect that you as the public sector are going to get the better of them."

It's a view that has informed Green policy. "[The plan] is not a fully costed plan because we’re bringing in money from a range of sources. We don’t just want to sign off one big deal with one big developer, who’ll promise us everything and then at the end get out of it because they’ve got the best lawyers. We think this is an incremental process that will accelerate into other areas, other bits of land can start using this model because they’ll see it works. We’ll get more housing that way."

Is this small-scale approach enough to get 50,000 new homes a year? "I think this is relatively labour intensive," Berry accepts. "There’s a lot of people going to be working in City Hall dealing with this." We suspect she may have to do some deals with those big developers to unlock major areas. There's also a question of whether the land can be freed up quickly enough: City Hall has identified potential sites for 450,000 homes, but not all of that is shovel-ready.

Berry is also one of the few candidates who rents (UKIP's Peter Whittle is the other). "I spent a lot of my 20s finding out what I wanted to do with my life, I didn’t think about buying anywhere. I missed the boat basically. Until recently I was paying more than half my salary out in rent and that’s very common."

She proposes a renters' union to represent the interests of London's 2.3m private tenants. It would support renters with information and campaign for things like rent controls. She also supports a landlord register for all of London, blacklisting bad landlords.

Air pollution

Berry is delighted to have been given 10/10 by Simon Birkett of Clean Air in London for her air pollution policies. "I know I’ve got a good air pollution plan, it’s an integrated plan that involves reducing traffic as well as getting vehicles cleaner. It’s got separate measures for buses, for taxis, for private cars, encouraging people onto cleaner modes of transport. But even so Simon’s really hard to please. And I’m amazed — he rated it perfect."

London's air quality, a long standing Green issue, is firmly at the top of the agenda these days. "It’s a massive tribute to all the community campaigners on the ground, doing citizen science monitoring. We’ve been breaching the legal limits for far too long. [London] should have made the [European directive] targets by 2010, and it’s 2016 now and the projection is we’re not going to make it until 2025. And that’s far too late.

"So my plan would bring everything within legal limits by 2020 at the latest. And again, that’s costed and affordable. Part of it comes from a smart, London wide congestion charge and a new Ultra Low Emission Zone that covers all of London. Two schemes which could possibly be combined into one registration system, which is what the drivers and the FSB will ask for."

Green influence

It's a quirk of politics that radical-sounding ideas often end up as the mainstream a few years down the line. A London Living Wage, 20mph zones and pedestrianising Oxford Street were all originally Green policies. So which part of her manifesto does Berry think will be adopted next?

"I think closing City Airport," she says. "The thing about City is with Crossrail coming in, from a strategic standpoint,  you can get to Heathrow really easily. [City] has a tiny number of flights in comparison to Heathrow. Heathrow and the other airports can easily absorb those flights. Business won’t suffer from that at all and we win back 500,000m sq of land, which we can use for homes and businesses."

It's not just about the mayoralty for Berry, either. Like Caroline Pidgeon and Peter Whittle, she's also standing for the London Assembly. "There’s the very important proportional representation vote that everyone has for the Assembly, and that’s where we’ve won seats every time there’s been a London election in the past. So even if I’m not mayor, I should be there in the London Assembly — hopefully — like Jenny Jones and Darren Johnson were, with a casting vote over the mayor’s budget.

"I’m a campaigner and I’ve got some experience of persuading ministers and civil servants to put serious money behind good ideas. I know Zac Goldsmith goes around saying ‘only a Tory can deal with a Tory government’ but actually I have won things out of this government and I’ve won things out of Labour governments as well."

Last Updated 28 March 2016